On Eve Of Coronation, Charles Is King Of Nation With Less Influence Than In His Mother’s Time

King Charles’ coronation is coming up next month, but he reigns over a country facing profound challenges.
King Charles’ coronation is coming up next month, but he reigns over a country facing profound challenges.

King Charles’ coronation is coming up next month, but he reigns over a country facing profound challenges.

King Charles’ coronation is taking place early next month, once again turning the spotlight on the United Kingdom.

Yet as the country celebrates its new monarch, it appears to have less influence now than it did under the reign of his mother, Queen Elizabeth.

A number of factors including Brexit, changes in political leadership and the death of its long-reigning queen have affected the U.K.’s role on the world stage, and they also raise questions about how the new king plans to navigate the challenges ahead.

‘A Tendency To Overestimate British Strength’

David Edgerton, a professor of history at King’s College London, said even though the U.K. tends to think of itself as a small United States, that’s not an accurate analogy and does not reflect where the country stands.

“There is a tendency to overestimate British strength,” Edgerton told HuffPost.

While some in Britain still believe a more ambitious U.K. could potentially regain the power it once enjoyed, Edgerton said, the world has ultimately changed, and there are many other countries across the globe that are major powers today.

In the post-Margaret Thatcher era, Edgerton explained, there was a sense within the country that the economy had been transformed and Britain was ready to assume its grand spot on the world stage.

“That was always a fantasy,” he added.

Edgerton said it’s important to think about Brexit in that context, because it hinged on the idea that the European Union would collapse after the U.K.’s withdrawal, and the bloc would then allow Britain to have the same trade arrangements it enjoyed as a member.

“A lot of British thought has been predicated on a strengthening of Britain’s place in the world, which simply hasn’t happened,” the professor said.

The Brexit Effect 

The U.K. voted 52%-48% to leave the EU in the highly divisive referendum that took place in the summer of 2016.

However, Britain only officially left the bloc on Jan. 31, 2020.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told HuffPost that while Britain still maintains a “fair degree of soft power,” Brexit and the ensuing political turmoil have damaged the country’s brand worldwide.

Brexit critics attribute most of the current economic challenges the country is facing to leaving the EU. Britain has experienced high inflation, a cost-of-living crisis that has spurred workers to action, and slow economic growth, to name a few.

The International Monetary Fund earlier this month upgraded its projection for the U.K.’s annual change in economic output from -0.6% to -0.3%, but Britain was still expected to be the hardest hit among the world’s advanced economies.

“The decision to leave the EU single market has irrefutably led to new trade barriers, contributed to higher consumer prices and made the economy less open globally,” says a report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change released in February.

But, according to the analysis, some of the problems were already there.

“Brexit has exposed and exacerbated the underlying weaknesses in the British economy — low productivity, low business investment, falling global competitiveness and, perhaps most strikingly, an absence of strategy from the government to tackle these problems,” the report said.

Public opinion seems to have also taken a turn, with a majority of Brits now appearing to have second thoughts about the decision to leave the bloc.

In a YouGov/Times of London poll published last month, 53% said Britain was wrong to leave the EU, with just 32% saying Brexit was the right decision.

Back-To-Back Changes In Political Leadership

The country has also gone through several back-to-back changes in political leadership in recent years, while the Conservative Party has remained in charge.

“Once upon a time, even if the United Kingdom didn’t have economic weight, it had a certain prestige in international affairs, arising above all from the Second World War, and perhaps from a certain diplomatic skill, a certain savoir-faire in world affairs,” Edgerton said. “But that’s frankly been blown out of the water by recent prime ministers and recent foreign secretaries.”

Following the 2016 referendum, then-Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned for “Remain,” resigned. He was succeeded by Theresa May. However, May underperformed in the snap general election she called in 2017.

Boris Johnson, who served as foreign secretary in May’s government, resigned from the post in 2018, citing differences over Brexit.

May was then forced to resign herself in 2019 due to growing disagreements within the party over her “new Brexit Deal,” setting up Johnson as the front-runner to succeed her.

Johnson won the Tory leadership contest and then went on to win the country’s 2019 general election, earning a big majority in Parliament.

During his tenure, the country officially left the EU, but other scandals he was involved in, including over breaking COVID-19 rules, led to his downfall in the summer of 2022.

His foreign secretary, Liz Truss, was picked by the Conservatives to take over, though she ended up being the shortest-serving leader in British history.

Her botched economic plan in September 2022 spooked markets, brought about a financial crisis, led to a fall in the value of the pound, and even forced the central bank to intervene.

Bale said the episode damaged the country’s reputation with financial markets. He added that the state of the economy is extremely crucial to the U.K.’s place in the world.

“Ultimately, Britain’s clout and role on the world stage is going to depend on its economy,” Bale said.

Frances Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and senior director at McLarty Associates, wrote at the time of Truss’ resignation that “until Britain finds a way to move forward economically, its global role will be at risk.”

“A strong defense stance requires economic growth and a strong budget over time, as does an active and global diplomatic role. The defense and rebuilding of Ukraine will require significant contributions from all allies; Britain has been a leader in this, but that cannot last without a stable government and healthy economy,” Burwell continued.

Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor, succeeded Truss as prime minister in October, pledging to “fix” the “mistakes” of his predecessor.

While Sunak was a Brexiteer, he has tried to forge a working relationship with the EU and has worked to reassure others around the world that the U.K. is on the right track.

Sunak has shelved the “Global Britain” term used by Johnson to project the country’s freedom to make its own trade deals and recognize its true potential in a post-Brexit world. He has instead chosen to forge a more pragmatic role for the country, for instance by reaching a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, dubbed the Windsor Framework.

Yet he has been the subject of several controversies himself and is being investigated over possible ethics breaches.

An Opportunity For The U.K. In Ukraine

Bale told HuffPost that Russia’s war in Ukraine made both the U.K. and the EU recognize they have much more in common and helped them start more productive discussions after many years of tension.

“Rather ironically in some ways, it took a conflict in Europe perhaps to shake people out of that quite difficult period of relations between the EU and the U.K.,” Bale said.

Both the U.K. and the EU backed Ukraine and were major allies with the U.S. in applying sanctions on Russia, but also in finding ways to help Kyiv deter Moscow’s attacks.

The Ukraine war has also presented an opportunity for the U.K. to show it’s “still the dominant security provider within Europe,” said David Lawrence, a research fellow at Chatham House and a Labour Party candidate in upcoming local elections.

The U.K. was the second biggest contributor of military aid to Ukraine, only behind the U.S. as of February 2023, according to the Ukraine Support Tracker created by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Sunak has also announced an increase in defense spending by about $5 billion over the next two years in response to the Ukraine war and other global threats, including China, and pushed forward a submarine deal with the U.S. and Australia, known as AUKUS.

“I think the question is more whether the U.K. has the economic capacity to back up its military ambitions, particularly when it’s thinking about the Indo-Pacific arena,” Lawrence said.

The Death Of Queen Elizabeth And The Rise Of Republicanism

The death of Queen Elizabeth in September prompted questions about the future of the royal family itself, as well as the British Commonwealth, which includes over 50 member nations, and about a potential call from more countries to become republics.

In 2021, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Barbados decided to become a republic, but didn’t leave the Commonwealth. Others could follow suit, which could pose a challenge to King Charles — head of state in 14 other countries besides the U.K. — and contribute to the perception that the monarchy is losing relevance.

“It is time that Jamaica become a republic,” Prime Minister Andrew Holness said in January.

Last month, the Caribbean nation founded a Constitutional Reform Committee to deliver that goal.

It’s not just Jamaica though. The Bahamas and Belize are reportedly considering taking similar steps, as are other countries.

Australia and New Zealand didnot appear to want to get drawn into the conversation about whether to become a republic in the immediate aftermath of the queen’s death, but the debate is likely to reemerge in years to come.

“I do believe that is where New Zealand will head in time,” then-New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in September. “I believe it’s likely to occur in my lifetime, but I don’t see it as a short-term measure or anything that is on the agenda anytime soon.”

Lawrence noted, though, that this is a moment when the Western alliance wants to pull together in light of events like the Ukraine war.

“If Australia or New Zealand or other Western countries were to launch really loud republican campaigns, then that might weaken [the] Western alliance or expose divisions and fractures, which wouldn’t necessarily be very helpful,” Lawrence told HuffPost.

What’s Next For King Charles And The Monarchy

The queen, a very popular figure both at home and abroad who served the country for 70 years, was often called the U.K.’s “greatest diplomat.”

“I think one thing we’ve perhaps forgotten is that the prestige of the British monarchy has in fact really been the prestige associated with a particular monarch, that’s to say Elizabeth II,” Edgerton said.

King Charles “is inevitably going to be a much smaller figure on the world stage than Elizabeth,” he continued.

Still, Bale recognized that Charles has so far approached his role in a smart way and served as a “very useful ambassador for the U.K.,” as illustrated during his  recent visit to Germany, where he helped “smooth over some of the ruffled feathers” from Brexit.

He planned a similar visit to France, but that had to be canceled due to protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise the retirement age.

Charles’ reign also offers an opportunity for him to try to define the future of the Commonwealth, which consists of 56 independent countries, most of which are former British colonies, and “reprioritize it” post-Brexit, Lawrence wrote in an essay published in October.

He warned, though, that the U.K. should not define the Commonwealth via shared values, citing the example of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh abstaining from a United Nations motion condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

“The Commonwealth’s breadth — its greatest strength — means consensus is often impossible, and so should not be the goal. Instead the Commonwealth should focus on tangible areas of cooperation where there is mutual interest such as trade, aid, and migration,” he wrote.

Lawrence told HuffPost an easy way to boost ties with member countries and also address the U.K.’s domestic issue of labor shortages is creating a mobility scheme that would allow people from Commonwealth nations to work, live and study in the U.K.

Whether Charles chooses to help promote such a scheme, he will also need to think about how to address the monarchy’s past.

Just last year, a trip by Prince William and Kate Middleton to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee ― and to dissuade other countries from following Barbados’ move ― proved controversial, as they were met with protests and calls for reparations.

Imperial Britain’s role in slavery, the status of former British colonies, and whether the U.K. owes them reparations are some of the questions “that the country is going to have to face over the next few years,” Bale said, “and indeed, the monarchy is going to have to face, because it, along with many other aristocrats, were intimately involved in that very violent trade.”